social media

Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

web-tacugama-chimps-groom

Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

*

Published in The Times

Things fall apart. But they also fall in love.

black-mirror-rosling

You probably haven’t heard of Hans Rosling. That’s because he’s trying to cheer you up.

The retired Swedish professor calls himself an “edutainer”, a necessarily pandering label in our vigorously anti-intellectual age. If he introduced himself more accurately as someone who does interesting things with statistics about humanity, he — see, you’ve glazed over already. So “edutainer” it is.

Rosling’s visual representations of our progress as a species are the sort of things that used to make TED talks quietly engrossing. When he speaks, people chuckle and raise their eyebrows. As promised on the bill, they are educated and entertained.

But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.

These are hyperbolic times so I’m hesitant to exaggerate too much, but, increasingly, Rosling looks like a lifeboat: small and dry (sometimes very dry, those wry Swedes), bobbing brightly on a sea of heaving despair.

In graph after graph and tweet after tweet, Rosling’s message is clear: most things are getting better. Our crawl out of the muck continues. Sometimes there are setbacks, but they don’t mean we have reversed our climb or started subsiding back into barbarism and despair.

Most things are getting better.

And yet you probably haven’t heard of Rosling, or Max Roser, or any of the other statisticians quietly chipping away at our vastly misanthropic assumptions.

It’s all there, for free, online: consolation, information, perspective, all a few clicks away. And yet it is Naomi Klein and John Pilger and George Monbiot whose grim ruminations are celebrated as “on point” reflections of the world. It is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with its almost pathological bleakness, that is hailed as an accurate vision of how things will soon be.

The reason for this rush away from hope towards misery is plain and a little depressing and, like all things, rooted in our beautifully self-destructive psyches.

Simply put, we don’t want to hear good news. We think we do, and we claim we do, but we don’t. And that’s because good news doesn’t make us angry. Bad news makes us angry. And anger feels so damned good.

Again, the official line is that we don’t like feeling angry and we want to kick the habit. Get off Facebook. Mute Twitter. Stop shouting at other drivers. Count to ten. But those are an addict’s self-deluding lies.

We crave anger because the world is confusing and loud and being angry makes you feel like there’s a plan; that you’re taking charge, if only of your emotions for the next ten minutes. And that feeling is addictive.

I’ve seen the addicts because I’ve been a dealer.

When I’ve written a thing full of spite and judgment they’ve come sidling up to me, murmuring praise. And then they’ve asked for more. More anger. More spite. A bigger hit. “You should write a thing about Zuma where …” “The problem with affirmative action is …”

Sometimes I’ve refused, and they’ve turned away bitterly and told me that I’ve “gone soft”, “become a libtard”, and they’ve gone to find harder, more dangerous stuff in darker corners of the internet.

If you’re properly addicted to anger, good news feels lame. No matter how good it is, it just can’t compete with the deep-exhaling, eyes-rolling-back dark ecstasy of a report that makes you instantly, deliciously, angry.

I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be peachy. That’s not what the likes of Rosling and Roser and Stephen Pinker are saying. But I am going to remind you that doom-mongers also have to pay mortgages.

I’m also going to ask you to try a little experiment I did this week.

The idea came from relationship- and sex writer Dorothy Black. I was making some gloomy, hugely generalised pronouncement on geopolitics in 2017 when she asked me why I was winding myself up over bad things that might not happen. Wasn’t it more useful — or at least healthier — to think about the good things that would definitely happen?

My immediate response was Scrooge-like. What good things would definitely happen? Well, she said, the good things that happen every day, somewhere in the world.

And so we started listing them. Not dreams or wishes but the actual blessings, great and small, which occur all the time, lighting up the world like fireflies, here, then there. Statistically verifiable joy.

Which is how I know that in 2017, every day, millions of humans are going to fall in love for the first time; truly, madly and deeply.

Millions will find a treasure they’d lost; remember something lovely they’d forgotten; begin an adventure.

Every day of 2017, millions of people will hear words they’ve longed for: “You’re hired”. “I love you”. “Mamma”.

And I know that over the next few weeks, many millions will find the deep, consoling pleasure that comes from switching off the internet and rediscovering the world as it truly is.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Race war for dummies

ruin“There is a race war in South Africa. It is 364 years old. Though we agreed to cease fire 22 years ago, we are agreeing to open fire again.”

It was just one of a series of tweets posted by Shaka Sisulu, grandson of Walter, and the rest revealed a less literal meaning; but that didn’t matter to the frightened white people who passed the message around. Not when there were so many other posts like it: social media, it turns out, is lousy with calls for ethnic civil war.

The white sabre-rattling is the same as always: gloomy predictions and poisonous assumptions, all masquerading as pessimism but barely disguising a nihilistic longing for Gotterdammerung.

The declarations of war by black people, however, were new to me.

Most were variations on a theme of exasperation. Penny Sparrow was the penultimate straw, but the attack on black protesters by a white mob at the University of the Free State was too much. Talking was futile with people determined not to listen. Now it was time for taking the land, the wealth, the power, and, if necessary, taking lives.

I don’t presume to know the minds or lived realities of people who feel that race war is a sensible solution to anything. But I would urge warriors on both sides to take a breath and to imagine, just for a moment, what an ethnic civil war in South Africa actually looks like.

At first it looks like a body, lying on a pavement in a blackening pool of blood. Soon, an angry mob. The police, firing rubber bullets. The politicians denounce the guilty and warn of a stern response. Then broken windows, overturned cars, fire. Then another body. Rumours spread faster than news. The police start using live ammunition; the politicians’ warnings get sterner.

Then, an appalling escalation: five bodies, including a child. The country staggers. There is a silence, and then a roar. The politicians stop denouncing and demanding, and start pleading. The army deploys but its orders are unclear. Rumour replaces news. White soldiers have fired on black civilians. Black soldiers have fired on white soldiers. New voices, cold and shrill, call for solidarity with race and culture and religion; call for revenge. Militias form. In the townships they’re called self-defence units. On the farms they’re called commandos. Rumour and news finally overlap: a self-defence unit and a commando have butchered each other somewhere in Limpopo. The footage shows black bodies, laid out in a line in the dust; white bodies, crumpled in a ditch. And we’re off.

Panic spreads like smoke. The rich fly away; everyone else drives or hitchhikes north, forming long caravans of buses, taxis and family sedans that pick the safest and fastest route to the border. There are scuffles with Mozambican border guards. Botswana announces it will take in 100000 refugees, but the rest need to go elsewhere. Namibia is swamped.

Many who stay believe that this will be a fight to the finish. Black or white, they are convinced that the land is theirs and that their enemies do not want to share it; that it is their only home; and that they will win or die trying.

Some don’t want land. They’re staying to settle old scores.

A few simply want to kill people, for no real reason.

Not everybody who takes up arms is South African. The frightened people camping at the border see them first: truckloads of meaty white men, coming south, heading for the most volatile towns. The white supremacists have arrived – skinheads from Russia, Britain and Scandinavia, Klansmen and Stormfront militiamen from the US – eager to wage racist jihad.

The killing begins in earnest, but within months ideologies begin to fracture. The struggle against a common enemy is replaced by more complex, lucrative skirmishes. Rival militias fight over control of money, drugs and weapons. The ideologues find themselves targeted as demoralising distractions, and they are murdered or flee.

Warlords, black and white, establish fiefdoms, and South Africa ceases to exist. In its place is hell, patrolled by young men armed with machetes and high on crystal meth, who divide their time between murder and recreational rape.

In the end the only people who win are racists living far away, who point and say, “See? We told you blacks and whites can’t live together. We told you it always ends like this in Africa.”

I don’t know what happens next. I suspect that there needs to be more talking and less shouting; that racists need to be told that they are ignorant rather than wise; that we need to vote the incompetents out of power and install managers who can educate us and feed us and keep the lights on. But I do know one thing for sure: if you’re calling for war, you’ve already surrendered.

*

First published in The Times

Out of the Fry panning into the fire

Fry anger

Tayla got straight to the point. I was, she said, “a complete p***”.

I studied the phrase, typed, stars and all, on my Facebook page, and wondered whether she meant I was a complete pope, perhaps combining the craggy good looks of John Paul II with the refreshing openness of Francis.

But a moment later another word appeared, this time typed by someone called Tamarin. It read, simply, “Poes”. So not a pope, then.

Other comments were less gynaecological and more general. David, for example, was terribly concerned over the state of local writing. “Your sour, ungenerous piece is typical of what is coming out of South African society at the moment,” he pronounced.

Lorna, too, seemed troubled by the quality of the populace, urging me and my “yob friends” to stop embarrassing ourselves on Facebook.

And the cause of all this wrath? Stephen Fry.

Last week the English actor and wit left Twitter, explaining on his blog that a once-pleasurable online meeting place had become overrun by viciousness. He is, of course, right. Twitter is now a sewer clogged with rage; the spiritual home of people defined by conservative pundits as “cry-bullies”. It has become an aggressively self-pitying mob that knows almost nothing and will believe almost anything.

To amuse myself, I wrote my own blog post called “Stephen Fry Is A Monster“, from the perspective of one of those “cry-bullies”: an outraged rant condemning Fry’s post, riddled with deliberate errors and obviously stupid assumptions.

I have never been accused of being subtle in my satire, and in this instance I laid it on particularly thick. For example, in his blog, Fry quotes a line from Rupert Brooke’s Peace. My reply: “I read Rupert Brookes’s blog entry, which is called Peace, and it was complete rubbish, it didn’t make any sense at all, and I showed it to a friend who said Oh of course, it’s a fucking POEM. A POEM, Mr Fry, you elitist prick. You know perfectly well that nobody can read a poem or what it means, and by plagiarizing a poem you were DELIBERATELY EXCLUDING THE 99%. You are a white supremacist.”

Delicate as a sledgehammer, ne?

The response was depressing. Not all of it, of course. For instance, I don’t blame Tayla and Tamarin for saying what they said. If you’re popping up on a stranger’s Facebook page to write “Poes”, it means you’re operating on a level where the world must be a very confusing and scary place, and it’s understandable that you’d want to lash out.

I get it. Reading is super-hard.

Even for people less intellectually challenged than those two, it can be very difficult to tell authentic online vitriol from parody, especially if you click on a story without any context. Sure, you might take a moment to read a couple of other pieces by the same writer, or perhaps skim through the dozens of comments on Facebook explaining that the piece is poking fun at the people who chased Fry off Twitter. But I get it. Reading is super-hard. And in a world where time is precious, why would you spend 30 seconds looking for context when you could spend them venting your spleen?

So no, it wasn’t the idiot anger. What depressed me was the fury of people who really should have known better. Some were people who have read my work for some time. One had a profile picture showing a proud humanities student being awarded a university degree.

When you write for a living and start interacting with readers you quickly learn that people who can read are not necessarily literate. But I confess I was shocked by the determination of those readers to remain illiterate.

They refused to search for context, or resisted having it handed to them; when someone pointed out their misreading of the piece, they would go into a series of aggressive emotional contortions rather than admit a mistake. It’s satire? No it’s not: I know satire and this isn’t it. Oh, it really is satire? Well it’s pretty stupid and Eaton is still a dick and Stephen Fry is still awesome.

In the coming months our country is going to get a lot louder and angrier. The written word, already militarised, will become even more wrathful. All our possible futures will be fought over, column centimetre by column centimetre. It’s going to get nasty.

But when it does, and various camps are clamouring for the high ground, it might help to think of Tamarin, queen of the illiterates, and her subjects who generate enormous amounts of heat but almost no light, and who can therefore be ignored. And what of the manifestos, the open letters, the think-pieces? Maybe ignore most of them too. After all (and Tamarin can confirm this): you can’t believe a damn thing you read any more.

*

First published in The Times

 

“Smoking is good for you”

smokingDear one,

I’m so sorry about vanishing like that just before Christmas, but I couldn’t stand the traffic and the wailing toddlers snotting on sweating Santas. I had to get away.  I hope you’ll forgive me for not forwarding an address for postcards and the like. The thing is, I’ve deliberately come to a place where news travels very slowly, if at all. You know how I’m always droning on about how there’s too much news and too much stupid? Well, I decided to go to a place where there’s none.

In the end I didn’t need a visa or even any money. All I needed was a decision: to switch off the babble for a few weeks. So I did.

I haven’t looked at Facebook or Twitter or news websites for two weeks.

Two weeks! Do you realise what that means, dear one? How much rancour I’ve avoided? How much prose-farting I’ve dodged? I feel that these two weeks have added two years to my life. What a glorious place this is!

You’d love it here. At first glance it looks a bit like South Africa, but the longer you stay here, the more you see the differences. The main one is that here, people just get on with things. Those who talk, talk to each other. If they fight, they work it out afterwards, like adults. Nobody drops an imaginary microphone and prances out of a non-existent room. And the most wonderful difference: in this country, people who lecture other people are actual lecturers rather than flakes who think that an audience is a substitute for years of therapy. Lord but it’s good to be free of the aggressive self-pity of the Internet Republic!

I won’t lie, though: getting here was tricky. Call it the turbulence of going cold turkey.

I can admit to you that I was properly hooked, and I knew it. But like a true addict I was deluding myself about the nature of my addiction.

I told myself that my need for news was virtuous; that the urge to check my phone was a desire to stay informed, and that each tweet or headline was contributing to a godlike view of the world, which, by implication, would ultimately lead to a godlike righteousness and wisdom.

You’ve felt it, too. I know you have: that subtle but relentless pressure to have an opinion about everything, to engage earnestly with everything, and, once the virtue commissars have named the target for the day, to rain down rhetorical fire upon it.

Yes, dear one, I told myself that I was hooked by a desire to be informed so that I could use my knowledge for good. But it wasn’t that. After all, if I was after knowledge I would have spent my days reading books by experts rather than poring over the nervous tics of nobodies.

No. The truth is, I was hooked on the jolts, the small but relentless bursts of anxiety that happened every single time I opened Twitter or Facebook or any local news site. I was plugged into an endless stream of second-hand disasters and third-rate manifestos. And every time one of them flared onto the screen, presented as the outrage du jour, it lit me up with a dim, smoky spark.

I know the brain doctors have figured out how this all works and their findings are depressing: it turns out that we’re all just lab rats pressing our noses against a red button marked MORE PLEASE. But I also think I was mistaking anxiety for a feeling of engagement. I was confusing chaos with connectedness.

Dear one, you know that I can be overly dramatic, but this holiday has made me begin to think that the internet is very, very bad for me, and I don’t only mean bad as in distracting and confusing. I mean that I suspect it’s bad for my physical and mental health.

Yes, I know the internet democratised knowledge (or at least porn and kittens) and helped the Arab Spring bring democracy to — oh, wait, never mind that second one. Anyway, it’s hailed as a Good Thing. But so were cigarettes, once. Doctors said so.

And I’m now convinced that we’re in the “smoking is good for you” phase of the internet.

In fact I’m sure that, 50 years from now, medical people will shake their heads and murmur, “Can you believe the toxic filth those poor rubes deliberately pumped into their eyeballs every single day?”

And they’ll be doubly grateful that China banned the internet once it bought the last independent country back in 2045.

I’m sure I’ll see you soon. Writers can’t stay off the internet forever. But, dear one, when I come back, it will be carefully. Very carefully.

Yours in being much more cautious and much more content, T.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

Reading between the lions

lion kingI don’t have a lot of time. Facebook is coming for me. So I’ll get straight to it.

Firstly, I suspect that the dentist has some emotional issues he probably needs to deal with, which makes him identical to 7 billion other people. What makes him different, however, is that we’ve decided that he alone must be destroyed. Walter Palmer must be hunted down and shot full of the arrows of righteousness.

Of course people have the right to be angry about whatever they’re angry about. I’m not going to engage in Facebook whataboutery and say they can’t be angry about the nasty killing of Cecil unless they’re angry about [insert injustice here]. But I am going to suggest, with respect, that the response to the killing has been a touch inconsistent; and it’s this inconsistency that makes me wonder if the current explosion of emotion is about much more than an act of arrogant cruelty. I think that Palmer has pulled some powerful triggers deeply rooted in our consciousness.

Some of them are fairly obvious. Naming the lion humanised it and transformed a hunter into a murderer. But what about the name itself? Tinged with defeat by half a century of Hollywood nerds and detective novel cuckolds, “Cecil” has become a victim’s name, slouching along next to “Norm” or “Seymour”. It’s the name of an awkward, meek soul, unlucky in life and love. It’s the name of the eternal underdog, put upon by the rich and arrogant and powerful.

A stereotyped victim needs a stereotyped bully to complete the picture of injustice, and this incident provides a perfect candidate: the Ugly American Abroad. Loathing the US is one of the last socially acceptable vices, and in the last week the right-thinking world has had its anger-nipples powerfully and deliciously tweaked.

we expect the super-rich to be psychotic

For me, though, the most interesting trigger that is being overlooked is Palmer’s occupation. Facebook is full of other animals killed by other Americans. Donald Trump’s son has posed with bloody carcasses but no one is hanging wreaths on Trump Tower. Maybe we expect the super-rich to be psychotic. But dentists hold a special place in our culture.

For starters, they hurt us as children, and sent us away without an apology, our mouths bleeding and drooling and numb. They are the original cowardly bullies of our middle-class memories: they ground metal into our faces, but when we tried to resist they told us to lie still. The unjust laws of adulthood protected them from a well-deserved punch in the nose.

There’s a widely held belief that dentists are more likely than any other professional to commit suicide. Even dentists believe it: articles in medical journals have anxiously addressed the phenomenon. The thing is, it’s not actually true. Yet the persistence of the myth suggests we want it to be true. Our childhood selves demand it. After all, how could dentists not want to kill themselves? How can they live with themselves?

The name, the nationality and the occupation are all potent triggers, and all three were pulled simultaneously. If you doubt their collective impact, imagine if a lion called 94B7-Z9 had been shot by a Zambian taxi boss. The ripple would barely have reached Harare, let alone CNN and Time magazine.

Now, though, the ripple has not only spread around the world but has started bouncing back on itself, creating an inevitable new swell: anger about anger.

As misanthropy becomes ever more fashionable, the zeitgeist has swung dramatically towards self-loathing. Some extremists have even stumbled over into self-parody, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who have called for Palmer to be executed. (Apparently the ethical treatment of animals doesn’t extend to hairless primates.)

But because we are all lost in a giant echo chamber, the reaction to the reaction has become just as despairing. For every Facebook status damning Palmer there is one damning the rest of us. What kind of monsters have we become, the thought leaders ask, if we value the lives of animals over the lives of humans?

If we really cared, we’d be able to name 50 of the most endangered species

It’s a silly question, of course. Every city, farm, plantation and abattoir is proof of how little we value animal life. The fact that we have something called “nature” – a ghetto in which we keep the animals that are unprofitable to eat or wear – is testament to our solipsism as a species. If we really cared about animal life, we’d be able to name 50 of the most endangered species. Hell, we’d be able to name five.

But there is one thing that we value more than human life, and that is our projections; of nobility, beauty, purity, family, loyalty. Once, in the Stone Age or Bronze Age or Iron Age, we could project them onto each other; but now the Iron Age has given way to the Irony Age, with its prevailing belief that we are simply the worst thing ever. So where do we project our finer ideals? What blank canvas is large and empty enough to accommodate all the righteousness we want to believe in? Cue a roaring lion.

Animals are safe carriers of our projections because they can never disappoint us. A lion or a rhino or a dolphin will never get hammered in a bar and lurch over to you to confess that it loathes the females of its species, including its mate, and that it’s now going down to the casino to gamble away its young’s education fund. But even if it did, we’d probably forgive it, because we understand that “nature” is a cruel place and that judgment is futile. If a lion kills a member of another pride that wanders onto its territory, it’s not being xenophobic; it’s just being a lion.

In the confusion of life the simplicity of animals soothes our complexity. And when the carrier of some of our worst prejudices kills the carrier of some of our noblest projections, it’s inevitable that some people are going to roar.

So are we being hypocritical or obsessive or callous in reacting however we react to the Palmer story? Maybe. But maybe we should also cut ourselves the same slack we give to animals. After all, aren’t we just animals being animals?

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

Blocked by Mbaks

instagramThis week I got blocked on Twitter by South Africa’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula. That doesn’t make me special. Mbalula aka Fiks aka Mbaks aka Razzmatazz aka Beyoncé Please Call Me blocks people faster than a jammer having a “glitch” in the media gallery at Parliament.

And to be honest, he’s actually been pretty restrained with me. I’ve been heckling him on Twitter for months, wondering aloud what a Sports Minister is actually for, or why he is paid 2.2 million of our tax rands every year, or how his ministry spends the billion tax rands it is handed annually. I mean, after you’ve signed off on your latest campaign to get South Africans interested in basketball (Because Americans! And Americans!) and then headed out for lunch in Camps Bay, there’s quite a lot of change left.

lunchMbalula, however, has not been idle since taking office. (You will recall he was once our deputy minister of police, in which role he urged cops to “shoot the bastards”, a policy which came to fruition at Marikana.) Oh yes, he’s been a busy little bee, and in the process has become famous for four things:

  • a public crush on Beyoncé which made him overlook the local musicians he’s supposed to support as he tried to get his dream date to come and perform at…
  • an awards dinner costing R21-million
  • calling Bafana Bafana a “bunch of losers”, and…
  • overseeing said losers’ progress in the global rankings from about 50th to about 50th

Bafana

The numbers don’t lie. This is a FIFA graph showing how our football team has fared compared to the football teams of the moderately fucked Democratic Republic of Congo, the mostly fucked Haiti, and the completely fucked Iraq. Say what you like about Mbalula but you can’t deny that under his administration we’ve performed much better than one country destroyed by war and another destroyed by an earthquake. Yes, we’re currently lagging another country being destroyed by civil war, but Mbaks surely has a plan. Perhaps involving lunch in Camps Bay.

But of course Mbalula’s biggest claim to fame is his addiction to social media. His instagram account is a selfie-encrusted altar to narcissism. It’s so startlingly self-obsessed it’s even had two articles written about it in proper newspapers. (Here’s one. And here’s the other.) And Twitter, ah, Twitter: it’s the padded cell in which Fiks can get his fix.

Now, Mbaks has always had a way with words. Not a good way, mind you, but still a way. His tweets are always memorable, in the same sort of way that a glimpse of a hillbilly dragging a bloody sack into the trees is memorable when you see it from a speeding train.

On Tuesday afternoon, though, things got very strange, very quickly…

razz

As the tweets rolled out, Fiks seemed to be going from DEFCON Loveable Babbler to DEFCON Oh Wow He’s Been Hacked to DEFCON Oh Fuck He’s Having A Nationally Broadcast Mental Breakdown.

hacked

A concerned nation weighed in. Some phoned the number he’d tweeted…

number

And then, just when it seemed that the Sports Minister had redeployed himself to Groendakkies…

not hacked

Now here’s the thing.If you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, then you’re a bad comedian. But if you’re the Sports Minister and you’re having to explain to people that you were doing comedy, THEN YOU’RE AN UTTERLY SHIT SPORTS MINISTER. I was unimpressed.

humor bankrupt

Something that’s always fascinated me about politicians is how they have two kinds of skin on their bodies. The one kind is incredibly thick. They can take astonishing abuse from each other. They can survive the kind of pressure that would kill you and me. They can be found guilty of fraud, of stealing our money; they can be shamed before an entire nation and be back in Parliament a few months later without even a hint of a blush. But the other kind of skin…that’s tissue-paper thin. The faintest, flimsiest film. Anything can get under it: a dandelion seed, a kitten’s sneeze…or perhaps a tweet about fucking around on Twitter.

Suddenly the jovial, I’m-Still-Mbaks-From-The-Block banter was gone, and the Honourable Fikile Mbalula, MP, stood up to wag the finger of state at me…

wag1

Oooo! Look at all the properly-spelled words! Look at the Capital Letters! Somebody was piiiiiiissed! But there was more…

wag2

I had no idea that asinine jokes about Wifi grants were a way for Public Reps around the World to engage, but he did have a point: if I didn’t like what I was reading, I was welcome to unfollow him.

Except, before I could unfollow him, this happened…

blocked

“You’re going to break up with me? Not if I break up with you first!” And bam! it was all over.

It was tempting to see a bigger picture; to imagine that this was yet another example of the ANC’s pathological inability to tolerate dissent. After all, Mbalula is an integral part of a corporation (because that’s what the government is) that brought us the proposed Media Tribunal, non-commissions of non-inquiry into the arms deal and Marikana, signal jammers, and a Speaker who fails to recognize people depending on how thick her political cataracts are that day.

But of course this wasn’t government or the ANC or even politics in general. This was just Mbaks being Mbaks. This is how he rolls. Scrambling up onto his moth-eaten high horse, wagging his little cyber-finger at me, he declared that Twitter was a way of engaging with people. And yet his reputation as someone who blocks first and asks questions later suggests that when it comes to Twitter, the only engagement he’s interested in involves a ring and Beyoncé.

Oh well. That was that. It was all over. Or was it?

Seconds after being cast into the outer darkness my Twitter mentions started lighting up.

Could Fikile have said something about me after blocking me? No. No adult, let alone an adult public servant, could be that petulant or juvenile. It would be like walking away from an argument, claiming it was beneath you, and then, once your opponent was out of earshot, turning around and yelling “And yo mamma too!” Not only would it be childish, it would be desperately weak. Pathetic, even. No, it was impossible.

But in Mbaks, all things are possible. This is what I found.

verwoerdSure.

Because the only possible reason taxpayers would tell you to do your job is white supremacy. Obvies.

His fans were cross. What they hell was I on about? What kind of Calvinist slave-driving buzz-killing arsehole was I to criticise Razzmatazz for spreading joy on Twitter?

buzzkill
She raised an interesting question, though: how much time was he spending on Twitter? At which point, as if reading my mind, the number crunchers at SA By Numbers weighed in:

stats

More analysis revealed that most of Fiks’s tweets are sent during working hours. So how much of our money is he pissing down the urinal of social media? *turns on overhead projector, licks finger, rubs off last remnants of yesterday’s lecture, wipes blue fingers on trousers*

Let’s assume the following:

1. Razzmatazz works 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year.

2. He works 12 hours a day. (MPs and Ministers pull long hours. What they actually do in those hours is debatable, but you can’t deny they arrive early and leave late.)

3. 12 hours a day, 5 days a week, 49 weeks a year = 2,940 hours a year.

4. For working those 2,940 hours he is paid R2,211,937, or R12.50 per minute.

In short:

giphy

OK. We know Fiks tweets around 22 times a day and that most of those happen during school hours. So let’s assume he’s tweeting on the job 18 times a day. Some of those are brain-farts. Some are imperious slap-downs to uppity columnists. Some or just re-tweets of things he’s liked. Some take 5 seconds to compose, others might take up to 20 seconds. So let’s go with about 15 seconds per tweet – which covers reading his timeline, replying to some tweets, getting annoyed by others, and generally trawling for stuff to re-tweet.

18 tweets x 15 seconds? Fiks is spending just 4 and a half minutes of his working day tweeting. We’re paying him R12.50 a minute, so his Twitter addiction is really only costing us R56 per day. Or R280 per week. Or R13,700 per yea – actually, fuck that. That’s social grants for three children living in hunger and poverty

Emotive? Manipulative? Perhaps. But I admit, I’m pissed off – at watching so much potential squandered by untouchable politicians, at being associated with Verwoerd when I demand that my public representatives work harder – so maybe I’m overreacting. After all, Twitter is an important tool for politicians. It gives them a direct link to the voters and allows them to communicate their policies, plans and success without all the red tape of press releases or speeches. If Mbaks is using Twitter to promote South African sport, to keep us informed of the successes of his ministry and his progress in transforming rugby and cricket (his biggest policy promise to date), then perhaps that’s R13,000 a year well spent.

So what does Fiks tweet about?

Life is far too short to read his Twitter feed for too long, but I thought 10 days would give a fair sample of content. And so I waded through his tweets from 1 March until lunchtime on 11 March. And here’s what I found.

  • Religious messages: 1
  • Comments on local music: 3
  • Lobbying for Durban to host the Commonwealth Games: 5
  • “Comedy” tweets: 8
  • Pictures of himself supporting sports events. Or playing golf. Or just of himself: 14
  • Messages of congratulations to sportspeople or musicians: 14
  • Messages of good luck to sportspeople (including re-tweets from others): 15
  • Zinging slap-downs of his critics: 16
  • Updates on current or upcoming sports events: 26
  • Various official-ish tweets on topics ranging from sports development to gender violence to Ebola to the sentencing of the Ivory Coast’s First Lady: 33
  • Informal banter with his followers, about sport, Twitter, the price of gold teeth, etc: 37

And what topic did Fiks fixate on most of all? What essential subject dominated his social media time? What could be important enough to keep those three kids hungry?

Fikile Mbalula, of course.

Between 1 March and the middle of 11 March, Razzmatazz re-tweeted or commented on a total of 41 tweets that were compliments to him by his fans.

Actually, “compliments” is too restrained a word. Rather think teenage girls at a Bieber concert.

fanmail2 fanmail3

Reading through the endless self-congratulation, I began to realize that I had completely misunderstood Mbaks. I had thought he was a public servant, working to uplift South Africans through sport. I hadn’t realized that he isn’t a Sports Minister at all. He’s not even a minister. He’s a celebrity comedian. He’s a marketing tool for the ANC.

These two tweets in particular helped me realize the error of my ways.

just a joke fanmail1

He’s hilarious. And he does what we pay him to do. In short, we pay him to be hilarious.

On Wednesday and Thursday, as sports writer Antoinette Muller took to Twitter to try to raise R8,500 to send two promising Khayelitsha touch-rugby stars to national trials, some might have wondered where Mbaks was. After all R8,500 is what he “earns” in a single day at the office.

But of course Fiks has nothing to do with sending those boys to trials. That’s not his job. His job is Razzmatazz, an endless song-and-dance routine, keeping the voters laughing so they don’t ask why his colleagues aren’t doing their jobs. No wonder his fans were angry with me: suggesting that he actually do his job was like me grumpily telling Beyoncé to get an office job.

His portfolio isn’t Sport and Recreation. It’s Hearts and Minds. Largely unqualified to win minds, he’s turned all his skill as a comedian and showman to winning hearts – and if Twitter is anything to go by, he’s doing his job superbly well.

Maybe it’s all a joke that this Caucasian isn’t getting. But I can’t help feeling that if voters are happy to hand over a billion rand a year to a joke ministry run by a joker, the joke’s very much on them. And Fikile Mbalula is having the last laugh.